Entitlement

Written by Stephen Rainey

It is often claimed, especially in heated Twitter debates, that one or other participant is entitled to their opinion. Sometimes, if someone encounters a challenge to their picture of the world, they will retort that they are entitled to their opinion. Or, maybe in an attempt to avoid confrontation, disagreement is sometimes brushed over by stating that whatever else may be going on, everyone is entitled to their opinion. This use of the phrase is highlighted in a recent piece in The Conversation. There, Patrick Stokes writes,

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.

I think this is right, and a problem well identified. Nevertheless, it’s not like no one, ever, is entitled to an opinion. So when are you, am I, are we, entitled to our opinion? What does it take to be entitled to an opinion?

Another way of saying that I’m entitled to my opinion might be to claim a special right to a particular point of view. The metaphorical content of this way of saying things maybe helps clarify a bit. If I have a right to a point of view, it’s because I have gained that perspective via some route. That route, in being one taken by me, appears to be cause enough to privilege the end point to which it leads. My take on things, my perspective, my point of view, is mine through the pains I’ve taken to reach it.

But the metaphor conceals as much as it reveals. Perspective isn’t something that entitles us to something. At best it’s something that explains why I take something to be as it is. For example, if we sit opposite one another at a table I may say ‘the bottle is to the left of the glass’. You may say, ‘the bottle is to the right of the glass’. We understand enough about the world at large to know what’s happening here, so we don’t need to disagree. We can each say, ‘From where you’re sitting…’ and flip our appraisal of things, left to right and vice versa.

But if we don’t want to be too penned in by the perspective metaphor, might experience in a larger sense entitle us to our opinions? Lived experience might be said to entitle someone to their opinion in the sense that having lived that very life the opinion they have formed is as a result. It seems a more usual use of entitlement like this: ‘My life experience, the life I’ve led, entitles me to my opinion.’ But we still need to ask whatentitles the person to their opinion here. Not the life lived, which could serve as a basis for any number of opinions, but rather the experiences that teach (rightly or wrongly) to understand x as y, or to value z.

The teachings of experience, in the sense used here, are such that they stand as reasons for holding something true or false, or to evaluate things in particular ways. The entitlement to the opinion is a shorthand way of saying something like, ‘as far as I know, in my experience, x tends to be y, and z is usually worthwhile.’

If being entitled to an opinion is really more like saying I have reasons for holding an opinion, this has implications for the kinds of ways entitlement to opinion arises. As a shorthand, entitlement to opinions ought to mean ‘I have reasons for my opinion.’ But surely we don’t think of entitlement as covering reasons. I am not entitled to reasons.

I am not entitled to reasons (and neither are you) because these are things that come about through specific efforts. Reasons aren’t given as part of the fabric of the universe. For instance, (with apologies to Donald Davidson), let’s imagine a burglar is startled mid-theft by a light switching on. I have no idea I am being burgled, but have woken with a thirst and visit the kitchen to get a glass of water. I turn on the light to find a glass. The burglar, sensing he’s been rumbled, flees and leaves my things unmolested. What is the reason for the burglar fleeing? His being startled? The light coming on? My thirst? The burglar’s lack of commitment to the job?

We don’t have to decide on what’s the best explanation here. We just need to see that however we want to explain things, a story must be told that comes from the various reasons we think of as most relevant to the situation. The better the reasons are put together, the better they resist scrutiny perhaps, the more the story they tell entitles me to my opinion on what happened with the burglar. I am entitled to the opinion by way of the reasons I can muster about it.

If I claim the reason for the burglar being startled is my thirst – that’s what got me up after all – then I am committed to just that. If I later recount the story with reference to my heroism in startling the burglar, something’s gone awry. There’s no glory in thirst. I’m not entitled to the tale of heroism because I’m committed to the story of thirst. Entitlement, rather than a kind of license to say whatever I want or to dissolve disagreement, seems more like a justificatory constraint on accounting for my rational commitments. I’ve claimed my need for water caused the burglar to be startled, by way of that prompting my rising and turning on the light. Not being entitled to speak of heroism is a way of articulating my commitment to the bland story of thirst.

Where you discover that you don’t have the entitlements you think you do, you really ought to revisit your rational commitments with a critical eye. This is why I agree with Stokes’ concern over I’m entitled to my opinion being used to shelter beliefs that ought to be abandoned. You gain entitlement through rational labour. It’s not yours to begin with. If you are entitled to your opinion in some matter, it ought to be because you’re consistently committed to a rational story about that matter. Where you can’t produce the story, or if you produce a rationally iffy one, you may not be entitled to the opinion after all. I can’t be a burglar-vanquishing hero through being parched. Someone else might be entitled to their opinion, in the case I claim so to be, that I ought to adjust my view. Put this way, it seems clearly possible that in some matter an interlocutor can assert you aren’t entitled to your opinion, and they can be right about that.

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11 Responses to Entitlement

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Interesting issue. But first, can we unpack “opinion” a little bit? Is an “opinion” something that, yes, entitles you to make a claim whether or not it has any correspondence with “the facts” of a matter, so far as they are known to others who might be more acquainted with the matter? If someone is of the “opinion” that global warming isn’t happening, for example, or that we just don’t know what’s causing it (except that it’s not us humans, so there’s no need for us to cut back on anything we’re doing!), does that mean the person is free of all constraints with respect to becoming informed as to what the people who have spent many years studying the Earth Systems have to say on the matter? I like this statement: “You gain entitlement through rational labour.” But how might that be defined, and how might the “opinion” that this is the way to gain such entitlement be propagated?

    • Stephen Rainey says:

      Thanks for this, Ronnie. The rational labour part would be defined in terms of dialogue (i.e. not just reflection). Robert Brandom describes a kind of scorekeeping game that ought to constrain dialogue. In the game, interlocutors keep check on how one another’s commitments and entitlements shape up. That’s a nice model. The idea is that consistency at least is maintained, though there’s more to it than that. So if someone offers reasons to do with their investment portfolio in a challenge to claims of climate change (en environmental issue) we can show the commitment to growing investment portfolios doesn’t entitle claims about the environment. The wrong sorts of reasons are being set against each other (Jürgen Habermas is also good in this idea of disentangling types of reasons and reasoning). In terms of propagation, at least two things appear to be important: the idea that someone may know better, and the (apparent) impulse to hold opinions on everything. When we defer to another’s reasons can be tricky and require some care. But its clear there are people who are more expert in fields than others. Here, argument ought to give way to learning (the other internet phenomenon, the ‘debate me’ thing forecloses on this, preferring a ‘win’ at any cost). The humility not to assume one has the wisdom to hold a view on just anything might also help. This could be another way in to learning, over and above perpetual sabre-rattling on everything from climate change, to globalism, to local council decisions, to philosophical accounts of whether holes are real or absences of real.

  • David Horacek says:

    I would start with what I think is the simplest possible account of “entitled to my opinion that p,” which is that p must, as a necessary condition, not established as false by some contextually appropriate standard of “established as false.” This rules out beliefs like “Eating GMO crops is unsafe” in every context worth considering, and that is indeed an opinion that no one is entitled to. But there is another issue that might be confusing the public discussion on these topics: Non-philosophers don’t typically hear the difference between “entitled to my opinion” and “entitled to my preference.” I think the difference is huge, but the superficial similarity can support various motte and bailey argumentative strategies. Of course people are entitled to prefer non-GMO crops even when they’re not entitled to the opinion that they are safer. It’s not discussed often enough how preferences are not veiled opinions – specifically, how preferring x is different from the opinion that x is good, or better, or indeed, preferable. Today I prefer to listen to music that I know is bad. Still, I like it, and there is no paradox in my liking things which I know are bad. As a first pass, “I’m entitled to like x” is true for all x. But that’s very different from being entitled to any opinion p.

    • Stephen Rainey says:

      Thanks for this, David.

      “Today I prefer to listen to music that I know is bad. Still, I like it, and there is no paradox in my liking things which I know are bad. As a first pass, “I’m entitled to like x” is true for all x. But that’s very different from being entitled to any opinion p.”

      Yes, though it might be that if greater critical labour was directed to the individual, rather than to some alleged external argument, more than few opinions might actually be revealed as preference. Nothing bad in having preferences judged bad even by the holder, but a mis-identification of preference as opinion can make for rational muddles.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Thanks for this, Stephen. I’m not familiar with Brandom’s scorekeeping game, and so I have some concerns about a possible connection between what is meant by “consistency” and something I worry about, the fragmentation of our knowledge/understanding base here in the 21st century. You provide an interesting example, since the motivations many people have for holding an “opinion” (would it be more honest to call it a “preference”—but then wouldn’t we all share it?) like “global warming isn’t happening” are very likely to be related to concerns about their investment portfolio—such concerns might even, in psychological terms, lead to a state of denial in which all incoming information regarding the topic is blanked out before even becoming fully conscious. But, when you say “the wrong sorts of reasons are being set against each other,” presumably in some sort of dialogue, I am wondering if “consistency” is taken to mean that there must be a stove-piping of our cognition such that issues falling within the two different categories, “the environment” and “the economy,” should not, or will not often, be considered at the same time and in their relationships to one another. The structure of academia encourages this, of course, since most fields have become so specialized that dialogue across these sorts of boundaries is difficult at best; people can be expert in their narrow field and have very little insight into others. Most of the time this doesn’t attract our notice as problematic, because most of the time significant dialogues go on among members of the same field, or more generally, among people who share a certain basic assumption structure; the trouble is, we all have to live together in the same real world, and if there are dislocations between the stovepipes it becomes very hard to figure out what to do, democratically, with respect to public policy. As a matter of fact, I think you may have put your finger on one of the crucial difficulties we face at the present time: the reality that the science of ecology describes is very different from the sort of reality that economics deals with, and we need to be able to think consistently about what’s really going on in order to reconcile them. And yes, having the “humility not to assume one has the wisdom to hold a view on just anything” could help a lot with that.

  • Alyse says:

    I think it’s also interesting to look at how this phrase is used, which is that it is always subjective. In other words, it does not mean the same thing used in the first person as it does in the second person. When someone says “You’re entitled to your opinion,” it almost always means “I disagree with the statement, but you may believe it regardless of its rightness or wrongness.” (Right and wrong are probably not the best terms to use here, but I think everyone knows what I mean.) On the other hand, when someone says “I’m entitled to my opinion,” it almost always means “I have the right to believe something different from you.”
    So you have two things going on here: the former argues that a person is entitled to be wrong about something, to believe something despite it’s wrongness, and the latter argues that people are allowed to believe different things, regardless of the thing’s rightness or wrongness. In one case, the factual accuracy of the opinion is very relevant and in the other it is not.
    Anyway, I just thought it was interesting to say that when people use this expression, it takes on different meanings depending on the perspective of the speaker. (Especially when two people in a discussion use it with each other.)

    • Stephen Rainey says:

      Thanks Alyse, I think this is a useful point. Given the meaning changes among speakers within the course of a discussion in the way you mention, it’s sometimes the case that (a) speakers are talking about their topic, and sometimes the case that (b) speakers are talking about talking about their topic. The rules are being set in (b), sometimes, as the conversation goes along. The meaning attached to the phrase, moreover, can be revealing about how each speaker values the points at issue. There is as much call for careful speaking as there is for careful listening, this being so.

  • Dave Frame says:

    I’ve always heard this phrase through a more political lens. Often, I think, people use the phrase to indicate they believe they are entitled to think and reason for themselves, and to make up their own minds. This is a response to the perceived imposition of beliefs, rather than a substantive argument about the justification of the beliefs in question. For instance, an individual working in an organisation might make a controversial argument. Peers may argue against that position. And the individual may assert their right to think for themselves. In that case the “entitled to own opinion” argument is operating more as an assertion of a human right. (This may especially be the case where individuals are objecting to group-think.) I think you’ve captured this well when you argue: “an interlocutor can assert you aren’t entitled to your opinion, and they can be right about that.” To me, this is exactly what heretics are arguing against when they assert their own rights to form their own beliefs.

    The global warming example is a good one. Many climate people would deny that climate deniers are entitled to their own views. I disagree. I think they are fully entitled to make up their own minds however they like. But others also have that freedom, and no one is under any duty to take their views seriously. But that is different from denying the right to one’s own opinion. One can imagine one equilibrium where we all think that the inner workings of other people’s beliefs are public property, and that we should all police each others reasons, rooting out heresy. Alternatively, one can imagine an equilibrium where people are free to believe any old garbage, and everyone else is free to ignore people when they spout bollocks. I prefer the second, though I find a distressing number of intellectuals prefer the first.

    • Stephen Rainey says:

      Thanks Dave. This is a good point, and I think relates to what Alyse suggests about the meaning of the phrase being important. The surface level ‘entitled to opinion’ looks the same whenever it’s uttered, but the meaning can vary (subjective assertion, statement of political freedom, claim to have figured things out, etc.). As speakers, it would be useful if, whenever we utter the phrase, we tagged it as one thing or another. As listeners, we could ask what, among the options, the phrase means for them, in the given instance. Maybe this kind of simple tack could steer toward better mutual understanding. This would avoid the heresy-finding option. In terms of the freedom to spout bollocks, sadly there’s a contagion factor to consider. Being free to spout doesn’t mean anyone has to listen, for sure. But there are those who might be swayed. Moreover, there is a power factor to consider. A climate change denier in charge of a national environmental policy unit, for instance, would be a bad thing. Would such a person be entitled to their opinion that, say, there is no significant warming of the planet since the industrial revolution? The reasons there might deserve more policing than, say, my belief that there is only one football team in London. At any rate, I suppose as well as the meaning of the phrase varying, the significance too can change regardless of surface similarity among instances.

      • Dave Frame says:

        Hi Stephen, thanks for replying. I think the only thing I’d add is that there may well be a power consideration in place already when people assert they are entitled to their own opinion. They may feel that there is either an explicit career penalty, or explicit or implicit social penalty, associated with the free expression of their view.*

        I think you’re right about people in positions of power having responsibilities to reflect evidence (and I agree that someone deaf to evidence should not be heading national policy units), but it’s perhaps people lower down in organisations whose thought-rights are most threatened by group-think.

        *This may occur not because the view is dumb or indefensible, but because the view is correct but inconvenient for social harmony or received wisdom.

  • Dr Ajaya Kashyap says:

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